The Transportation Security Administration is now requiring commercial gun ranges seeking contracts to help train federal air marshals to first prove the facilities are not tainted with lead.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is now requiring commercial gun ranges seeking contracts to help train federal air marshals and other officers to first prove the facilities are not tainted with lead.
The changes come after a Seattle Times investigation in April revealed indoor-gun ranges in Washington and elsewhere had exposed hundreds of air marshals and federal Bureau of Prisons employees to dangerous levels of the poisonous metal.
Two Seattle-area gun ranges each had outstanding violations for inadequate ventilation and lead-contaminated surfaces while benefiting from federal contracts. The two ranges also had repeatedly violated lead-safety regulations and ended up sickening their own workers.
Firing lead-based ammunition emits lead vapor and dust, causing shooters to be overexposed to the toxic metal if a range doesn’t have proper ventilation or adequate cleanup.
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TSA officials declined The Times’ requests for an interview about what prompted the new bid language and whether the new standard would apply to all future firing-range contracts across the country.
Air marshals, who provide armed security on certain flights, must prove their proficiency with a service firearm at least four times a year. TSA selects the gun ranges where they train.
Frank Terreri, president of the Federal Air Marshals Agency, which is part of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he was “amazed” to learn of TSA’s new language on lead safety.
“It’s pretty wild that they would put that out there now because it basically admits they were wrong for not doing this years ago,” he said. “I mean, all ranges that they use should be OSHA-certified. That’s a no-brainer.”
The bids require a gun range to show that its indoor air recently has met federal safety standards and to provide results from recent lead-exposure tests or an inspection report showing compliance with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
After the Times’ April story, a lawyer for the air marshals’ union sent a letter to TSA’s acting director, demanding the agency stop using any gun range “that has not been inspected by or received an up-to-date clearance from OSHA that the range is safe from toxic poisoning.”
In early June, TSA sent the union a letter that acknowledged TSA-leased firing ranges “must comply” with OSHA lead standards, but the agency did not admit fault or address the problems raised in the newspaper’s report.
About six weeks later, the new language detailing lead-safety requirements appeared in a TSA contract notice soliciting firing-range services in Houston, and then later in bids for firing-range services in the Detroit area.
As far back as 2008, TSA had been warned that it should check all gun ranges it uses to make sure air marshals were safe.
“Air monitoring should be conducted throughout the Air Marshal Service at all gun ranges to insure that employees are not being overexposed to lead,” OSHA compliance inspector Michael Bonkowski recommended to agency officials in an August 2008 letter.
In a recent interview, Bonkowski said he had been asked by an Air Marshal Service official for help in 2008 after several of the service’s firearms instructors training at Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. Air marshals had been training there since 2004.
After finding lead-contaminated air and surfaces above safe levels at Wade’s, Bonkowski wrote to officials: “Hazardous conditions” at Wade’s “appear to present a threat of serious physical harm.”
He later said he told a Wade’s manager that pregnant women should not be allowed to use the firing range until it was cleaned up.
The Air Marshal Service ended its contract with Wade’s and contracted in 2009 with Champion Arms, a private firing range in Kent that had a history of violating health and safety regulations. That year, a Washington Labor & Industries (L&I) expert called Champion Arms the worst indoor range ever investigated in Washington.
L&I has said both ranges have corrected all violations.
Neither owner of the two ranges responded to phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Officials for the air marshals’ union welcomed the new contract language about lead safety. But they said TSA also should notify all of its federal officers that they may have trained in lead-contaminated ranges, an action the union requested previously to the agency shortly after the newspaper’s April report.
“Hundreds of guys training every three or four months for years were probably bringing all this poison home to their families,” Terreri said. “Are they ever going to address that?”
The TSA issued a brief statement after it declined earlier this month to comment on its new lead-safety requirements:
“TSA seeks opportunities to train its employees on firing ranges that take into account the safety and well-being of its workforce as well as cost effectiveness. As ranges are identified, TSA-established criteria require that bids must comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established levels for lead exposure.”